Read an Excerpt
Mark leaned against the bar, a gin and tonic warming beside him. He scanned the darkened room once more. Nearing midnight on a Tuesday night, the pickings were bound to be slim, but he preferred it that way. The last thing he needed was for the press of too much human flesh to multiply the likelihood that he'd bolt with a panic attack.
He'd kenneled his dog and traveled to this town ostensibly for an applied mathematics conference and dutifully spent the day in sparsely populated lecture halls listening to research talks, taking notes and learning. He always sat in the back, as far from the other participants as possible, so that whenever his anxiety got overwhelming he could duck back to the hotel for an hour in the weight room. Still, it was exhausting. And unnecessary. While his department head was always impressed that he flew across the country to these conferences and thought it a sign of diligence and dedication to his work and students, none of the other online teachers ever attended. On the rare occasions when the department met in person, people would ask Mark about Santa Fe or Seattle or Tampa or wherever the last conference had been, but he knew they all thought him odd for going. But of course, this was what he really came for, to sit in a darkened bar in an anonymous city, hoping to break through his cocoon of fear long enough to briefly touch.
The door to the street opened and a tall, slightly bulky man appeared. He looked around nervously.
Mark's heart rate sped up with that familiar mix of fear and excitement. He straightened slightly and caught the man's eye. The guy visibly relaxed and Mark could almost hear him thanking God there was another manly man in the place. Mark sipped his drink, his eyes never leaving the stranger as he willed him forward. If he played it right the guy would never know how wrong he was.
As he got closer Mark could see that the man was older than he'd first thought. His hair was graying at the temples and there were lines around his eyes. Mark guessed he was late forties or early fifties. He hadn't bothered to remove his wedding ring. Not that it mattered, but at least he was honest. And married men were simpler. Afterward, they were always as anxious to leave as he was to disappear.
Mark smiled slightly as the man settled onto a bar stool a few feet away. This part was never difficult, particularly with the ones pretending to be straight. They always gravitated toward Mark, his muscular frame reassuring them in a way a more delicate man never could. The trick was to keep them from starting a conversation. Mark could look cool, normal even, as long as he wasn't required to speak. But the game would be up the minute he tried to sputter his way through an introductory sentence. His heart would pound, his face flush and his mind dissolve, suddenly incapable of coherent thought. Pathological shyness, Mark's own personal hell, only fully kicked in when he tried to hold a conversation with an attractive man.
Over the years he'd developed a few tricks. So when the guy held out his hand and said, "I'm Jim. Can I buy you a drink?" Mark took his hand, held the guy's gaze and raised his eyebrows.
Jim inhaled sharply and nodded. "Yeah. Where do you want to go?"
Mark shrugged, allowing his eyes to travel down Jim's body and rest on the bulge in his jeans.